In a recent publication Dr Rachel Aldred, smart travel researcher and trustee of the London Cycling Campaign, takes a look at creating inclusive cycling conditions. She informs us that “increasing child cycling has proved particularly challenging. While some metropolitan areas in the UK have seen an uptake in adult commuting… rates of children cycling to school have barely shifted”. Catherine Weare, a campaign member in Gosforth, discusses the findings and sets the context for Newcastle. You can read Rachel’s full paper “Adults’ attitudes towards child cycling: a study of the impact of infrastructure” here [pdf].
For many if not all parents the reason why this should prove challenging is likely to be obvious. Think of the roads around your house, on the way to school, or to the library, or to the shops. Which of these feel safe enough to cycle on with your children?
But is the answer less obvious to those in charge of creating our infrastructure, where the most often used ways of creating cycling routes are simply to paint a white line down the side of a busy road, or to direct cyclists onto heavily parked estate roads, often themselves used as ‘rat runs’?
So what types of routes are acceptable for children?
Dr Rachel Aldred of Westminster University published peer-reviewed academic research earlier this year in European Journal of Transport and Infrastructure Research, which answers this exact question . With a B.A. and a Ph.D. in sociology, she is now a senior lecturer in Transport at Westminster University and has twice been elected a trustee of the London Cycling Campaign and is Chair of its Policy Forum.
Carrying out a survey of nearly 2,000 adults she asked them to judge how suitable different types of infrastructure were for three different types of child cyclists:
- an adult carrying a child on his / her bicycle
- an adult cycling with an 8 year old
- a sensible 12 year old on his / her own
And then to make the same judgement for two types of adult cyclists:
- the respondents themselves
- ‘most people’ (to include a wide range of abilities)
The results for the three categories of child cycling showed a strong consensus:
|Suitable for Children||Not Suitable for Children|
The respondents, mainly “confident and experienced” cyclists, also recognised that ‘most adults’ would have the same requirements as children, even though they themselves were willing to cycle all ten categories including on busier roads.
What can officials do?
For engineers, town planners and others involved in creating cycle infrastructure, this research, through identifying five designs suitable for child cycling, both provides guidance as to how achieve the objective of increasing child cycling and the means to justify the choice of those designs.
Conversely if a proposed development includes any of the five designs found unsuitable for child cycling, then planners and engineers must expect that parents will not use that route when cycling with their children .
What can we, parents, do?
For parents in Newcastle wishing to cycle with their children, this research should be a useful tool too.
Firstly it backs up their views: if one family puts forward a request for suitable infrastructure then previously this could be dismissed as an isolated request whereas this research shows that this is not the case.
Secondly it will help parents engage with and hold Councillors and Council Officials to account when unsuitable infrastructure is proposed. The research allows parents to argue that it would only be suitable for confident and experienced adult cyclists, and if the route is planned to be a route used by children (e.g. if it is an access route to a school) then it must be improved.
Thirdly the research answers a frequently voiced opposition to proposed developments such as the cycle route on Gosforth High Street: namely not enough cyclists can be seen currently using the routes to merit such a development. If one compares the cycle routes in Gosforth and other areas of Newcastle to the 5 suitable categories of the research it soon becomes clear that, while there are routes that meet these standards, they are not linked and do not form a coherent network. The inescapable conclusion is that many families in Newcastle are currently being prevented from cycling with their children as the existing infrastructure is inadequate.
A local example of an interrupted route
Suitable and unsuitable conditions in Newcastle: a child can cycle along the Little Moor park route in friendly, untheatening conditions and surrounds, but then meets the painted lane on Gosforth High Street which is quite unsuitable using the child-friendly cycling classifcation.
Routes must be complete and continuous to be of use. And they should be designed so that everyone – kids, and people of all ages and abilities – can cycle.
(1) An online copy of the research, which is concise and readable, can be accessed via Dr Aldred’s website: http://rachelaldred.org/publications
(2) Engineers and planners have not been able to use previous academic research for this purpose as child cycling is a curious and concerning gap in academic knowledge. Dr. Aldred acknowledges this, and has designed her research to fill a gap both in public health research:
‘Much work in the area treats child cycling and walking together […] In low-cycling contexts, this has generated findings most relevant to walking; as levels of cycling within samples are often too small for independent analysis.’ (EJTIR Issue 15(2), 2015 p93)
and in cycle infrastructure research:
‘there is little detailed research looking at what kinds of cycle infrastructure are perceived to be safe for child cycling, and how they compare to solo adult infrastructural preferences […]In low-cycling countries, precisely where there is the greatest need to explore what infrastructural changes may contribute to increasing child cycling, the levels of child cycling are so low that the collection of data evidencing actual behaviour is difficult, as opposed to asking people about hypothetical preferences.’ (EJTIR Issue 15(2), 2015 p94)
There is also a lack of research on whether actions to improve child cycling are actually effective.
‘There remains relatively little research on the impact of different interventions (infrastructural or otherwise) on child cycling levels. Ducheyne et al (2014) examined child cycle training, finding it was (2014:60) ‘effective in improving children’s cycling skills [but without] increasing children’s cycling to school levels.’ They draw the conclusion that cycle training is useful but should not be seen as a means of increasing cycling. Panter et al argue that (2013: 10) ‘interventions which focus on road safety may […] be particularly efficacious’, but note that few robust studies of high quality interventions have been conducted.’ (EJTIR Issue 15(2), 2015 p94)
One question not asked or answered by the research is why child cyclists are so difficult to find. Dr Aldred notes that there is a need for further research in this area and it is to be hoped that future researchers will be assisted by some of the many organised nexus of child cyclists, such as Go-Ride clubs, Sustrans activities, school clubs and Bikeability training to fill this gap.